Dog Nigger is being renamed Digger in the Peter Jackson remake of the 1955 British classic film The Dambusters, in order to avoid offending American audiences.
In the original 1955 black and white film about British World War II scientists who developed a bouncing bomb to attack Germany's dams, the dog's name was spoken 12 times as a code word to report successful dam breaches to RAF Bomber Command.
Script writer Stephen Fry told The Daily Mail it was out of the question that in America you could ever have a dog called Nigger - a word constantly repeated in the original film.
"It's no good saying that it is the Latin word for black or that it didn't have the meaning that it does now -- you just can't go back, which is unfortunate," Fry explained.
Mervyn Hallam, curator of RAF Scampton Museum in England, said Fry was trying to 'rewrite history'.
"It's not a problem with coloured people, it's the people in power creating the problem. Sod their political correctness and sod human rights.
"They should keep the dog's name the same -- it's ridiculous that they are trying to rewrite history. His grave is still here with his name on it."
In the context of the film it was not a racist name, he said.
My first reaction is Never mind offending Australians as long as we don't shock the Yanks - their box office is ten times bigger. It is only after reading some of the bickering that this has given an excuse for among perpetual bickerers that the doubts kick in.
It really raises two issues: that of authenticity and that of racism. At first glance, it looks an appalling case of anachronistic prissiness breaching authenticity. What I refuse to pussy-foot around calling The N-Word but boards can get uptight about, so I shall respell in the original Latin with Classical pronunciation if I have to, was not at that time and place a particularly bad word, whatever it was in America.
There may be talk of casual racism (whatever that is - surely racism requires a degree of deliberation?) but whatever word English people used to describe 'black' Americans was far less important than the number of times they hid them from military police looking to beat them up for fraternizing with native whites and heaven, forbid, their women. Racism exists in how words are used, not what they are. Naturally it existed at the time, casually and otherwise and still does, but probably the most offensively racist word in contemporary English English was Wog - a word the late L.Ron Hubbard delighted in using of non-Scientologists and his successors still do.
Annoying though this challenge to authenticity may be, just what is authentic anyway? After all, Swords and Sandals epics are not made in Latin; Germans in war films more often speak a sing-song English than subtitled German, and did cheeky chappies ever really say things like Flaming heck Guv, me foot's bleeding bin and jolly well got blown awf?
To some extent they did. Phrases in common use today (and over-use - entry 17) were reserved for the most appalling occasions and never, ever, admitted by media to exist. Others were simply never spoken where the other sex might overhear. Even words as 'ordinary' as Woman and Virgin - in fact almost any word relating to females - were treated warily and not in front of the children.
But the two extremes of wartime society, the working-class conscript squaddy and ex-public school Oxbridge RAF Officers' Mess élite both tended to be freer with their language than the film-going and book-reading public liked to admit (or those producing for them liked to think they would admit). So is the original film linguistically authentic? Almost certainly not. It might give a modern American audience a fit of the vapours to hear the men chanting Niger, niger, niger (In Latin, board, they were ex-private education don'cha know?) but can we really believe that nobody said something like We've bloody got the fuckers! Not on 1950s film they bloody fucking didn't!
So although annoying, this little bit of anachronistic self-censorship is really no different from its predecessors.
That is what should be the real issue. Every age has its unspeakables. Every age just as much prides itself on speaking the previous ages unspeakables, often to excess (as Ms Le Guin observes so delightfully) until they are eventually over-spoken into oblivion. Every age also prides itself that since it can and does speak the previous age's unspeakables, it is therefore liberated from such repressive concepts as unspeakable words and unthinkable thoughts. The words each new liberated age dare not speak and the thoughts it dare not think are quite different from the former ages: theirs were the product of repression, the new age's the result of enlightened sensitivity to the feelings of others, to which the former unenlightened age, with all its stifling social repression, was crassly uncaring.
It is of course rare to actually consult the others concerned about their real feelings on these issues. Should they say that actually they have far more important things to worry about, that is sure evidence of how effectively society has conditioned them to accept what enlightened members of that society know they should not, therefore even more reason to avoid giving the offence they have been conditioned not to feel until they learn to be offended by inadvertent use of such words by others too ignorant to know how offensive their use of them is - or rather should be. If that looks a complicated circuitous sentence - it reflects the kind of self-referential thinking at work!
Very often, the words concerned are offensive only to a vociferous minority shocked at their use by a majority who find nothing offensive about them at all and never did, or they have been in use for so long that any original offensiveness has long eroded with common usage. Where there is prejudice, transferring it to the word and insisting on an euphemistic replacement does nothing to address the prejudice, which merely transfers to the replacement. This has been the case with words for 'black' Americans. As long as actual prejudice against them remained, each word, whether Negro, Black, Colored, Afro-American or any other in turn passed from respectable euphemism to indrawn breath shocking. My God! How dare you say Colored People! They are Persons of Color. Umm yes, and if a Person of Color is not a Colored Person just what is s/he? You just don't understand, Dinosaur.
Quite right, because to the pure, all things are pure: where there is no prejudice to start with, it matters not a jot what term is used. For that matter, where there is prejudice, it also makes no difference what term is used: the prejudice will just transfer to the new one, as demonstrated in the Falklands anecdote which somebody who was there assures me is true. The islanders being simple country folk, squaddies called them Bennies after the retarded (and that is a word Americans throw about viewed almost as offensive as Niger) character in the 'soap' Crossroads. Admonished for this, they called them Stills. "Well, whatever you call them, they're still Bennies aren't they?"